LINCOLN â€” If Davies plans to win its first regular-season division championship in nine years, then the Patriots are going to have to survive a gauntlet of tough games over these final 10 days.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Patriots passed their first test by winning a tight game with Bishop Keough. Thanks to its strong performances on the boards and on defense, Davies was able to secure a 49-45 victory that gave the hosts their eighth win in their last nine games.
Now 9-2 in the Division III-North ranks (10-3 overall) and a half-game better than idle North Smithfield (9-3) in the standings, the Patriots erased a 33-31 lead by the Koalas with less than eight minutes to play by rattling off the next eight points and 15 of the next 21 to assume a 46-39 lead with 3:52 still to play. Twice, the Koalas cut their deficit to four, but they came no closer.
The key to the Patriotsâ€™ victory was their stifling defense and the attention they put on the Koalasâ€™ top two scorers, senior forward Suigly Mendoza and sophomore guard Ashley Correa. The Patriots did their best to make life miserable for both players, who are averaging over 20 points per game this season, and while Correa ended up with a game-high 17 points, Mendoza finished with 12 before fouling out of the game with 3:52 to play.
â€śItâ€™s a defensive game,â€ť said Davies coach Joe Handy, who in a 55-43 loss to Division III-South co-leader Juanita Sanchez last Friday, saw his girls hold the Cavaliersâ€™ two 20-point scorers, D'Asia Allen and Elfreda Hoff, to 12 points each. â€śThese girls had to work hard on defense all year long and theyâ€™re conditioned for it. I respect Ashley Correa and Suigly (Mendoza), and you could tell that by the defenses we were playing on them.â€ť
While the Patriots were delivering on defense, they were pounding the glass with authority and had four players rip down at least eight rebounds each. Junior forward Waleska Kelly led the assault with 16 rebounds, seven points, and three blocked shots, Jackie Sequen added 13 boards and nine points, and Jasmine Ayala (12 rebounds) and Joneilly Ayala (eight) also contributed to the cause.
The Patriotsâ€™ senior backcourt also played great, with Kaitlin Flynn leading the Patriots with 15 points and six assists and Rosaliz Torres adding 12 points, including three straight three-pointers in the gameâ€™s first 2:17, and five steals.
Thanks to Torresâ€™s long-distance shooting, all coming off passes from Flynn, the Patriots bolted out to a quick 11-4 command. But then they couldnâ€™y buy a bucket for the next four minutes, and that helped the Koalas respond with the next eight points to take the lead with 8:58 left in the half.
From that point until the eight-minute mark of the second half, both teams jockeyed back and forth for the lead, with the Patriots holding a 22-20 lead at the break and neither side holding more than a four-point command.
But with 7:53 to play, Sequen knotted the score with a jumper in the corner, and 24 seconds later, Alicea gave the Patriots the lead for good with a neat no-look, reverse layup. With less than six minutes to play, the Patriots found themselves with a 39-33 lead, and two minutes later, that lead swelled as high as 46-39.
While Correa, who also delivered defensively with seven steals, and Mendoza had splendid games for the Koalas, so did freshman forward Analyse Valle, who scored 16 points and added nine rebounds in one of her best games of the season.
The loss was an extra difficult one for the Koalas, who fell to 4-7 in the division (with four of their losses by seven or less points) and saw their playoff hopes take a hit. Keough has two big games awaiting them in a rematch with Davies on Saturday at 4 p.m. at St. Raphael Academyâ€™s Alumni Hall and a showdown next Tuesday at Shea against the Raiders, another team vying for the sixth and final playoff spot.
As for the Patriots, after the game with the Koalas comes another difficult road game on Tuesday against North Smithfield, which they beat by three points in their first meeting back on Jan. 8. Three nights later, Davies will host Shea, which has given the Patriots nothing but competitive battles since the Raiders dropped down to Division III two years ago.
â€śWe have to go one game at a time,â€ť said Handy. â€śI think we have to win two out of the next three to get the top seed. We already beat North Smithfield, but we played a really strong game to beat them and weâ€™re going to have to do the same thing next week.
â€śWeâ€™re not the strength of the league and I donâ€™t consider us at the same level as Middletown, North Smithfield, and (Juanita) Sanchez. I think weâ€™re right with Keough and Central, and weâ€™re going to be that team that could spoil something for somebody. My girls are just playing hard, and Iâ€™m very happy with them.â€ť